9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
THE TALE OF TWO SINNERS
Most of Jesus' parables that he preaches are about managers, or people in a field, or something like that. They are parables about men and women on the streets or in the courts. Not so with this parable. When Jesus tells this story he puts us right in the middle of church. Right in the middle of a prayer meeting.
The story, if it was told in our day and age, would go something like this:
There were two men that walked into church that Sunday morning. One was on the deacon board. The other was a thieving drug addict. The deacon moved to the front of the sanctuary. The drug addict moved to the back of the sanctuary.
That deacon, he was hard to miss. His shirt was pressed just so. He had a Brooks Brothers suit and the best of silk ties. He had a Bible with him when he came into church, and it weighed about 20 pounds. It was a Thompson Chain Reference, Scofield, KJV Duck Hunters for Jesus Study Bible with red letters and gold trim that was autographed by Billy Graham. (Yes I do have friends that have autographed Bibles) It had a Strong's Concordance built in as well. He liked to sit in the place in the church that everyone could see him and everyone could admire him. He had half the Bible memorized, and he quoted verses to folks in about every situation he was in. He stood apart from everybody else.
Then the Bible said he started to pray. The prayer went something like this:
Thank you Jesus that you brought ME here. Thank you that you did not make ME like all of these other people. Thank you Lord that I am not like the other people that are around me. Thank you that I don't cheat on my wife. Thank you God that I don't cheat on my taxes. Thank you God that I have never set foot in that bar downtown. Thank you God that I am not HIM back there.
Furthermore Lord, I tithe 10 percent of everything I earn and everything I have on the gross. I fast every other day. I not only do not drink, smoke or chew, Lord, I don't even drink pop or coffee. Thank you Lord for making ME such a good man. Thank you Jesus for making ME so good and so holy.
Do you notice how impressed with himself the Pharisee is, both in the Scripture passage and in my contemporary retelling? It is almost like he is submitting a resume in prayer, expecting God to be impressed.
The druggie showed up fifteen minutes late to church and left five minutes early. He sat in the furthest back portion of the sanctuary, and he exited before anyone could shake his hand or get his name. Although everyone knew who he was, nobody acknowledged his presence.
The man smelled awful, and looked even worse. Gaunt, thin, strung out, unshaven and shaking he has just had an experience that has shook him to the core. There is not one person in town who would give him the time of day.
Something has changed him that day though. He has come to church. Something has touched him. The Holy Spirit has been working on his heart. And he sits with his head bowed down. He beats his chest. He quietly says under his breath, "God have mercy upon me, a sinner."
He doesn't have to say more. He has come to the end of himself and he is broken. He does not have a spiritual resume to present. He can't say anything anymore to impress himself, much less anyone else, or God.
He just says, "God have mercy upon me a sinner"
He just says God help me. I can't do it on my own. I am at the end of my rope. My life is out of control. Help me. Forgive me. He says all these things with one 7 word prayer.
"Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner".
You see there were two men who went to church that Sunday. And Jesus says that one went home justified. Who was that? It was the tax collector in his day. The druggie/thief in ours world. The one whose sin was obvious, who nobody would trust, and the one whose sin was obvious to everyone.
The Pharisee or the deacon did not go home justified. He forgot when he walked up those stairs into that church that he was a sinner. That he was dependent on God's grace. He forgot that God was not impressed with how much money he gave, or how good a reputation he had. He forgot that he was supposed to "do justice, love mercy, and WALK HUMBLY with his God." You see when the Pharisee and tax collector walked into church, there was not one sinner walking into church. There were two.
The question that we have when we read this is, "Who are you?" Are you the deacon or the drug dealer? Are you the tax collector or the Pharisee?
When I ask the question, my honest hope is that you are neither. I don't want you to be a self-righteous member of the God-squad thinking it is your job to be the morality police for everyone around you. And, a 20 pound Bible is entirely too heavy of a Bible to carry to church every Sunday.
Nor do I hope that you have to hit rock-bottom on some drug problem or three year bender before you come to the end of your rope and turn to Jesus in repentance. If it is where you are, there is hope for you. But I don't want that pain to be a part of your life.
Nevertheless, the question is, "Who are you? Are you the tax collector or the Pharisee?"
Jesus said that he told this story to folks who trusted in themselves and their righteousness, and that despised others.
Does sound like you? You shake your head "No".
Does that sound like me? I shrug my shoulders. As a matter of fact, sometimes it does. Maybe.
You see my friends, as people, and as Christians we always need to be on guard against self-righteousness and self-justification. We always need to be careful that in doing the good works that God has asked us to do that we do not mistake God's grace at work in our lives for our righteousesness.
One of Satan's best tricks to play on people who have their live going in the right direction is to make them believe that when they are doing the right thing that they are somehow impressing God, and are somehow better than everyone else around them.
It is easy to get impressed with our own efforts. To pat ourselves on the back. To tell ourselves we have come a long way. And that we may not be perfect, but we are better than most. So sad.
The more that we think our growth in faith is about our maturity, our goodness, our morals, and our goodness, the further we get away from God and his grace. It is not long before we are shaking our heads or our fingers at all our relatives and friends.
And then something worse happens. If you pay attention to the Pharisee, you will notice that his morals are impeccable. His behavior, above reproach. You will also notice that his worship is not really about God at all. He is worshipping himself.
The poor Pharisee. He believes he is to impress God with his right behavior. He forgets that righteousness is less about right behavior than it is about right relationship. And sin less about broken laws that the fact that we have a broken relationship with God and our neighbor.
If we must always be on guard against the Pharisee in all of us, we must always pursue the heart of the tax collector. The Apostle Paul said he believed himself to be the chief of sinners. Bonhoeffer says if we don't see ourselves as the worst of sinners that we don't really take our sin seriously at all.
You see if we are to believe in Jesus at all, we must throw ourselves completely upon his grace, and his love. We must completely believe that there is nothing that we can do to justify ourselves before God. We must come before him with empty hands and open hearts.
That is something most of us believe we should do when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
But the tax collector's attitude is not just an attitude we should have when we come to faith in Jesus. No. It should be the attitude we have in our hearts every day. Every day we should throw ourselves on God's mercy and grace. Every day we should ask for God's mercy and forgiveness, and admit that if we do not have God's help and God's guidance we ruin our lives. Every day we must trust in him to help us love. Every day we must depend on him to stand strong against evil. Everyday if we claim to be his followers, we must be humble enough to admit we are lost without him and are made true and whole only by him. That is what it means to believe in Jesus.
As we close, let us look at this passage in a way I have asked you to look at a few others before.
I want you imagine yourself in another place 2000 years back. I want you to imagine you are at Calvary and Jesus is dying on the cross. And as Jesus hangs there, his blood being shed for you, his breathing pained, his body suffering. As you look at Jesus there….I want you to think about what words you would say to Jesus there. What words would you pray?
Would you say, "Look at me Jesus. You are dying but I am going to continue going to church every Sunday. I am going to make sure I give at least 10 percent. I am going to read my Bible everyday. I am going to be a better person that this person and that person. I am going to fast twice a week. I will live a life that will impress everyone for you"?
Or would you look at Jesus, dying on the cross, his blood being shed for you, his body being beat beyond recognition for your sins, and realize that there is nothing you can do save yourself, and that only what Jesus is doing then and there can save you from eternal torment? Would you look at him in that moment and try and talk about all the things you have done or will do? Or would you cry out, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner". "God, have mercy upon me a sinner". God, have mercy on me a sinner".
Yeah. That is what I thought.